Exclusive: Lifting the hood to the future of Singapore’s transport

By Yun Xuan Poon

Foo Cexiang, Director (Futures and Transformation) at the Ministry of Transport, talks electric vehicles, autonomous vehicles, drones and sustainability.

In ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities’, writer and activist Jane Jacobs likened the ideal safe and inviting city to an “intricate ballet”. Neighbours, shop owners, businesspeople and vehicles interact in a meticulous choreography as they go about their daily lives, all adding to the vibrancy of the streets.

This alluring vision from the 1960s has today welcomed a couple of new dancers. Cities are beginning to adopt new transport tech such as electric vehicles, autonomous vehicles and drones. They will need to rethink how best to roll them out to create safe and accessible spaces while minimising transport systems’ impact on the environment.

This is the core mission of the Futures and Transformation division at Singapore’s Ministry of Transport. Director Foo Cexiang shares more on its new sustainability unit, and how it is paving the way to the future of transport in the city.

New sustainability unit

Sustainability will be a big focus for Singapore’s transport. If done right, the nation could cut a “significant” amount of carbon emissions. “Today, if all our light vehicles run on electricity, we will be able to reduce carbon emissions by about 4 per cent of national emissions, or about 25 per cent of our land transport emissions,” Foo says.

The ministry formed a new unit on 1 April this year to oversee greening efforts across its agencies. The unit helps to coordinate sustainability initiatives across land, sea and air transport, and consolidates understanding of new grounds such as hydrogen.

This approach has been useful for putting in place the charging network for electric vehicles (EVs) across the country. The Ministry and the Land Transport Authority worked closely with the Housing Development Board to install chargers in public carparks. Two thirds of Singapore’s EV chargers in 2030 will be placed in these carparks, CNA reported.

The team also worked with the energy authority to link up with electrical sources.

The team’s experience coordinating across public agencies “will derive very useful lessons, parallels and learning points” when electrifying domestic harbourcraft, Foo notes. This will be “one of the key priorities of the maritime sector”, he adds.

Charging ahead with EVs

Electric vehicles will be key to bringing down the country’s transport emissions. They generate 50 per cent less carbon emissions than petrol or diesel cars in Singapore, Foo says.

The future looks even more promising as the nation makes the switch to greener power sources. “The more we are able to do that, [the greater] the reductions in carbon emissions for EVs,” he shares. EVs will also reduce street level temperatures in urban Singapore, and are much quieter.

They will bring economic opportunities as well. South Korean carmaker Hyundai has set up a plant in Singapore, giving the island state its first EV manufacturer on home ground. Some models will start production by the end of this year, The Straits Times reported.

Lessons from abroad

There are many decisions to make in the transition to electric vehicles for any country. Singapore is looking at the experiences of others elsewhere in the world for reference.

One example is an app feature that tells users where the nearest EV charger is. This is a new feature in the Land Transport Authority’s MyTransport app, which gives updated information on traffic and public transport services. The feature also includes information on pricing and charger type, and could eventually show which chargers are available in real time, Foo says.

The team looked overseas to see which features are popular and will be relevant for Singaporeans, he shares. For instance, the app should consolidate charging points across operators. The team should also be able to easily layer extra features, such as Google maps navigation, onto the app.

One issue all countries would need to think about as they roll out EVs is whether to adopt fast or slow chargers. Slow chargers are simpler but can take up to 14 hours for a full charge, while fast chargers can power up a car in four hours, according to Ovo Energy.

Singapore has chosen to implement mostly slow chargers. While some leading European countries such as Germany and Norway are rolling out fast charging, these mainly serve cross country travel needs, explains Foo. Hong Kong, another dense urban city, has similarly adopted more slow chargers in their strategy.

Autonomous vehicles for better safety

Autonomous vehicles are another tech Foo’s team is exploring. They can potentially be safer, as “more than 90 per cent of car accidents are due to human error”, he shares.
They will also encourage more efficient land use. “Internationally, the average car is parked more than 90 per cent of the time,” he adds. Shared autonomous vehicles would be able to flit around the city serving different people, rather than sitting idly in one spot.

Yet, the tech will need to adapt for it to be useful in Singapore. The tropical island goes through bouts of heavy rain throughout the year. The vehicles’ sensors and radars would need to work even in these weather conditions.

There is also a huge fear of job loss amongst bus captains and taxi drivers. But it’s unlikely drivers will become completely obsolete anytime soon, Foo says. “And even in that process of leading up, automated technology offers a lot of potential to help existing workers,” he shares.

Automation can help drivers make decisions on the road. “The role of the driver may change, but the importance of the driver remains.” It’s crucial for Foo’s team to work closely with unions and drivers to make sure they are “part of the evolution of the job”, he says.

Drones take off

Next up is drones. They have plenty of potential in Singapore: in fire rescue and incident management; in goods delivery; even in the study of aeronautical engineering, says Foo.

But there must be proper precautions before drones can take off in the country. Singapore, as an international airhub, has a busy airspace. Air defence is also critical for the nation.

“While we want to be able to facilitate the increasing number of users and uses, we will always need to make sure that this is balanced against the need for fundamental aviation and public safety,” Foo shares.

His team is working with the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) to draft up drone regulations, including permits and no fly zones. CAAS will have a system to track in real-time registered unmanned aircraft. This system can prompt users when they enter an out of bounds area to avoid unintended breaches.

Future of work commutes

The world has seen big shifts in transport patterns over the last two years, especially in work commutes. Singapore will focus on two things while preparing its transport planning and infrastructure for this change.

The first is to have a “baseline sense” of travel patterns and preferences, says Foo. Companies are now allowed to have all staff back in the office, but some organisations may choose to stick to hybrid arrangements. Employees might also work in a cafe rather than at home on remote work days.

Across MOT, “we are constantly having a close sense of the ground” on travel patterns and preferences, he shares. It’s important to integrate transport planning with land use planning as well, as this “can reduce the need for commuting,” he says.

The second thing Foo’s team grapples with is the need to balance future tech with current needs. Much of this involves changing mindsets.

There is “a lot of anxiety” surrounding EV charging, for instance. Users worry if slow charging would take too much time. These concerns stem from current habits of refuelling at petrol kiosks, says Foo.

Slow charging could actually be more convenient, he explains, as users can plan their charging around daily activities. They could charge vehicles while in the office or at their lunch venue. This, of course, prerequisites a very accessible network of EV chargers, he notes.

“We can all agree that the future will be safer and more sustainable, but the process of getting there is disruptive,” Foo says. His team bears the challenge of bringing new transport technologies to new heights, but also grounding the advances in policies and safeguards.

Featured image by MOT.